The first memory I have of the story of Johnny Appleseed is of the Walt Disney cartoon about him, with Dennis Day singing the role. I was about seven years old when I saw it. I did not actually remember Dennis Day’s singing; my children now own a videotape of the cartoon. That reminded me.
Think of the technological revolution that has taken place since I saw that cartoon 40 years ago: a home videotape machine, a color television set, and a broadcast satellite 23,600 miles above the earth in stationary orbit. (By the way, I have literally cut the cords on both machines; these technological marvels became too addictive.) Think also of the technological wonder of that cartoon compared with the flickering black and white Disney cartoons of the early 1930’s, about a decade and a half before he made Johnny Appleseed. Johnny supposedly scattered his appleseeds as he wandered through the land. Walt Disney in fact scattered a lot more than appleseeds.
Back in the 1920’s, Disney was in a barracks with another recruit. The other man’s name was Ray Kroc. Disney hit it big earlier, but Kroc changed the world far more. He developed the pioneer franchise business: McDonald’s. With that franchise, he changed the way modern business works, as well as the eating habits of a nation, and maybe the world. (They have to station polite teenage guards at the door of the McDonald’s in Budapest, to let people in a few at a time, so long are the lines.) Kroc’s biographer records Kroc’s memory of Disney in Grinding It Out, a superb account of entrepreneurship. Disney would sit on his bunk sketching pictures of animals. There, in one army barracks, were two of the greatest visionaries of the modern world, two entrepreneurs who left their world a better place than when they arrived.
This is the Appleseed principle.
There really was a Johnny Appleseed. His name was John Chapman. Mott Media has published a delightful work of imaginative fiction and fact about his life in its Sowers Series for young readers. He was born in Massachusetts just before the outbreak of the American Revolution, in 1774. By age 18, he began a lifetime of intermittent wandering and intermittent orchard farming, living as a traveling evangelist, farmer, field hand, and planter of apple trees. He moved west, decade by decade. He died in Indiana in 1845.
Not much is known about him. He really did wear a cooking pot on his head as his hat. But we remember him as a legend, a man who moved west with the nation. He is remembered more for his drifting than for the plots of land that he turned into productive orchards.
His fame would be much less if he were remembered for what he really was, a farmer and a land speculator, like so many other American pioneers. He would merely be one among hundreds of thousands of others. What we remember is the legend of his seedsowing, not his patient caretaking. We see him as the Disney cartoon portrays him: the man who scattered seeds as he wandered through the new land. We forget the hard work that a successful orchard requires.
Americans have a streak of romanticism in them–not the Valentines day sort of romanticism, but the romanticism of independent man the wanderer, the pioneer, the dreamer of dreams. We dream of the “open road,” and fantasize about a life spent as motorized nomads driving across the country in a brand-new Corvette sports car (“Route 66”) or on a motorcycle (“Then Came Bronson”).
Yet we know that we would make poor nomads. There is still too much of the Puritan work ethic in us. So we remember the trees that somehow sprouted automatically from the seeds that an earlier supposed nomad scattered. Johnny Appleseed left the world a better place, we know. We pretend that he was a nomad rather than a pilgrim, a drifter rather than a man with a vision of heaven.
(For the rest of my article, click the link.)